Multimedia in the New York Times

Each of us tends to access his/her “lifelong learning” where s/he finds it. I resort frequently to the Grey Lady, which continues to educate me about the world. Over the past few years I’ve watched the NY Times enthusiastically embrace multimedia in many forms — interactive maps, audio slideshows, and the like. The NYT has become a state-of-the-art purveyor of  highly meaningful multimedia objects.

An example is Scenes From a Ruined Boulevard, which consists of photos of one street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the wake of the quake. The photos are arranged left to right, overlapping, in an extremely horizontal collage hundreds or thousands of pixels wide. A scrollbar allows the user to “move” along this path, viewing many blocks of destruction and, occasionally, people among the ruins. When people do appear, text pops up explaining what they’re doing. (While the page employs a lot of javascript, the interaction itself is Flash.)

From Scenes From a Ruined Boulevard, New York Times
From “Scenes From a Ruined Boulevard,” New York Times

“Scenes From a Ruined Boulevard” has what I would call a dimensionality far exceeding the power of text — and, indeed, conventional photojournalism. In scrolling, the NYT “reader” is overwhelmed by the severity and relentless ubiquity of the destruction as well as the severe depopulation of the city. Yet the text pop-ups underscore the humanity among the ruins — the numerous ways that people are coping, or not, with the devastation: e.g., by looting, or trying to engage in commerce.

Thus one has a sense not unlike driving in a jeep along the ruined street and seeing not just the collapsed buildings but the stories behind and among them. It’s journalism 2.0. And interestingly, this complex presentation was conceived before the photographer took the photos and the reporter investigated the little stories, because the photographer had to know that a complete record of the entire street, building by building, was needed. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have bothered to shoot every linear inch of the streetscape. Regardless,

Foyer of Patience Orphanage. New York Times photo.
Foyer of Patience Orphanage. New York Times photo.

A similar yet different effect is conveyed in Panorama: Foyer of Patience Orphanage. Here, a special camera has been used to photograph the interior of a school in all (360-degree) directions, thus vastly exceeding the frame of the photographic image while still utilizing the power and acuity of the still image. As the image pans 360 degrees on the webpage, the viewer takes in the complete context in all its emotional force — the beauty of the students, the wretchedness of the poverty — with a sense of standing in the middle of it and confronting it firsthand. (The viewer cna pause the camera at any point to view it in more detail.) The educational strengths are obvious — as the view rotates slowly, patiently, the crisp details (much, much crisper than in video) are seared onto one’s consciousness. I could easily see something like Panorama: Foyer of Patience Orphanage used as a learning object — e.g., asking students to watch it and record their observations and impressions.

One reason for the NYT expending such resources on these learning objects is overtly educational. The newspaper positions itself as a resource for K-12 instruction — which is of course a form of long-term marketing, i.e., reaching and cultivating future readers.

From Perspectives on Haitis Earthquake, New York Times
From “Perspectives on Haiti’s Earthquake,” New York Times

Perspectives on Haiti’s Earthquake takes a different approach again — it’s a webpage/menu of 18 four-minute audio files, each one accompanied by a photo of the person speaking. They’re categorized as “Aid Providers,” “Journalists,” “Academics & Authors,” and “Concerned Americans & Haitians” — thus providing a range of perspectives a student is apt to find rewarding, especially given the  details that surface as these individuals are describing their experiences and thoughts. The student or reader learns not only how these diverse people respond but how they think about and evaluate the situation differently.

The hidden beauty of “Perspectives on Haiti’s Earthquake” is that it’s not necessarily resource-intensive to produce. Most of the audiofiles sound like they were recorded over the phone. And thus is speaks to what newspapers do better than TV — depth of coverage. Unencumbered by TV camera crews, newspapers can provide depth and breadth, and usually faster.

And as illustrated here, newspapers can present it interactively (unlike TV), allowing the reader or student to choose what to focus on — which portions of the encompassing image; which perspectives on the disaster. These multimedia objects are engaging not only because they’re highly professional, but because they engage the student via real-world current events of enormous magnitude.

Unlike the passive medium of TV, this is active, constructive learning, allowing the reader/viewer/student to assemble his own meaning from the fragments. And the fragments all count — each gives “texture and depth to the educational experience” (to quote our Vista content this week). Nothing is superfluous or gratuitous.

All that being said, while these superb learning objects may set a shining example to aspire to, it’s sobering to consider the gulf between them and what’s really feasible or justifiable in the “real” educational context. We don’t have such multimedia artists/journalists to draw upon. And the NYT can justify the expenditure as (a) bringing media-rich information to its readers in a competitive market; and (b) marketing to the next generation of readers, via the classroom.

The Web 2.0 software we experimented with this past week presents affordable ways of generating multimedia learning objects — if crude, basic ones. But in most instances, that will do the trick. One can still take away from the NYT a sense of design rigour and clarity of purpose that needn’t break the bank.


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